U.S. State Dept. Calls for Reforming International Treaties That Support the Global Drug War


By Michael Collins

Source: Drug Policy Alliance

In the fight to end the drug war, U.S. foreign policy has been particularly frustrating. While we have seen a myriad of changes at the domestic level on marijuana, criminal justice, and harm reduction, U.S. foreign policy has remained on autopilot.

Foreign aid to fund the drug war abroad is still in the billions of dollars per year despite the fact that this approach has been entirely counterproductive, especially in Latin America. All that may be changing though, with the State Department now calling for a “flexible” approach to the international treaties that have underpinned the global drug war for generations.

The man who made the promising comments is William Brownfield, Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs (INL). INL has long been a champion of the drug war, cracking down on any country that dared to engage in drug policy reform. For example, in 2006 the Bush Administration pressured Mexico’s President Vicente Fox to veto a bill that would decriminalize small amounts of possession of certain drugs.

What has changed? Washington and Colorado. Their legalization of marijuana put State Department and U.S. foreign policy in a bind. How could Brownfield and his buddies lecture other countries on drug policy, and push prohibition, when two states at home were legalizing marijuana? How to justify sending billions of dollars in aid to fight cartels in Mexico for something that is legal on the other side of the border?

For most of the year following the legalization of marijuana in Washington and Colorado, the Obama Administration said very little about how it would approach these two states, given that they were technically in violation of federal law. In August 2013, the Department of Justice issued a memo in which it set forth a hands-off approach to states that reformed their marijuana laws.

Once again, this bold move by Attorney General Eric Holder put the State Department in a bind. They were forced to explain this new policy position to foreign partners who accused the U.S. hypocrisy – pushing foreign governments to stay the course in the failed drug war and prohibiting any changes, while allowing drug policy reform to proceed at home.

Something had to give. In the end, Secretary Brownfield, in April of this year, recognized the need for reform. The three international treaties, which have encouraged prohibition and militarization, should be viewed as “flexible”, thus allowing drug policy reform.

But it was last week that Brownfield laid out the current U.S. position in clear detail, demonstrating a desire for U.S. foreign policy to match domestic policy: “How could I, a representative of the government of the United States of America, be intolerant of a government that permits any experimentation with legalization of marijuana if two of the 50 states of the United States of America have chosen to walk down that road?”

Such a phrase would have been unthinkable two years ago, and represents the remarkable shift by the U.S. government in the direction of ending the international drug war and reforming antiquated international drug laws.

To be sure, we should wait for State Department’s policy to match Brownfield’s prose. If they are serious about drug policy reform, then Congress should cut drug war funding, and the U.S. should encourage reform among international partners.

With the State Department following Department of Justice in seeking an end to the failed drug war, we should be asking – which agency is next? The DEA?

I won’t hold my breath, but with the pace that drug policy reform has moved in recent years, we can dare to dream.

Michael Collins is a policy manager for the Drug Policy Alliance’s Office of National Affairs.


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